Saturday, August 8, 2020

Knowing Me, Knowing You

Replying to a post over at The Friendly Necromancer on the recent Promptapalooza topic of favorite quotes led to an interesting exchange of comments with Stingite yesterday. I was going to continue the conversation there but I sometimes feel that going to and fro over a topic in a comment thread can feel a little intrusive so I thought I'd spin my thoughts on the subject into a post here, instead.

The quote in question, which you can find in full at the original post, together with a video clip of pro wrestler Al Snow saying it, makes the point that fans think they know but they don't, something that leads to false assumptions and ultimately to conflict.

I think that's true but I think it's fully reversible. In my comment I said "professionals have the experience of producing the content but they really don't have the experience of consuming it. It's never going to matter to them in the same way it matters to a fan."

Stingite replied with details on the due diligence a good, responsible developer employs out of a desire to make the best game they possibly can and to understand as fully as possible how that game will be experienced by its players. He concludes "This behavior should be the norm, not the exception" and I agree with that, too.

And yet, no matter the good will and resolution on each side, neither party can truly hope to know the experience of the other. Or can they?

There is one obvious difference between the two positions. As Al Snow says, fans "think they now have knowledge and an understanding of a business that they've never been in" but fans can and do transition into development. It may even be the most common route.

I wouldn't know. I stand in the position of knowing ignorance outlined by Snow; I've never worked in the video-game industry so anything I say is supposition.

It would surprise me, though, if it turned out that a majority of video-game professionals hadn't passed through a period of game fandom at some point prior to making gaming a career. It's not exactly banking or insurance, after all; a steady, reliable choice made out of pragmatism and a desire for security.

Anyone can play games and obsess about them; it's a lot harder to steep yourself in the magical world of insurance as a teen, although I'm willing to bet someone is doing it right now. Chances are, though, that most game-makers played games before they jumped the fence.

That could lead them to believe they understand what it is to be a fan. And it kind of does... only, really, it doesn't. It lets them understand what it was like to be a fan when they were a fan. But fandom isn't what it once was.

There was a time when just knowing the names of people in a creative industry qualified you as a fan and Xeroxing a few pages to share the information made you a superfan with fans of your own. Roy Thomas got his start that way. Hell, so did Francois Truffaut. That's how hard it was to know anything, once.

Things aren't like that any more. The bar has moved. The internet reveals all and social media shares. The fan/pro barrier is porous to the point of dissolution. Twitch makes fans more famous than the creators they feed off.

For many, being a fan is a lifestyle. For some it's an identity. For a few it's a full-time job, with pay. Where it gets awkward is when it becomes the key, defining, most significant thing about you. What makes you who you are. Knowing more about that one thing than anyone else. Wanting it, loving it, needing it. Owning it. Being your obsession.

I knew someone back in the 1980s who would buy the same copies of comics he already owned, over and over again. Not variants or reprints or different editions. The literal same, identical copies. He wanted, needed to re-experience the surge of pleasure that discovering and possessing those comics had given him first time around. He had to re-own his own life. Vicariously.

That's what being a fan does to you. It makes you feel your identity is bound up in the object of your obsession. That's why "toxic" fans behave so irrationally, so bizarrely. It's why they take everything so personally. Being a fan isn't just what they are, it's who they are. Threaten the thing they idolize and you threaten their sense of self.

Which is terrifying. Change is scary enough when it's the outer world that changes but when it's you're interiority that's shifting... well, that's going to trigger a reaction.

A reaction which everyone else is going to see as wholly disproportionate, if not just plain wrong, based as it is not just on a false premise but a complete misunderstanding of reality. Fans, as Al Snow says, " have no actual experience" of how things work. All they know is how they feel.

Seasoned developers, conversely, have plenty of experience. They know exactly how things work, even if it's only in their particular area of expertise. They know why changes are being made, what the outcome ought to be, where the compromises are. They also know it's not forever. If change doesn't work, change can be changed. And if that doesn't work, ultimately, there'll be another job. A chance do better with a new challenge.

Fans have none of that. By definition, a fan believes what they worship cannot change. It has to stay the same or the world will come to an end. Their world. Ironically, when their self-constructed, tissue-paper world does inevitably crash and burn, some fans just stepping-stone to another. Loyalties can transfer. But not always. Not for everyone.

Fandom doesn't demand stasis, of course. More of the same is always welcome. And more of the same can be something different. If you were a Bowie fan in the '70s and '80s you had to be ready to scrub off the glitter and face paint and start wearing suits.

But mostly fans like things to go along much as they were before. If there's too much change at first they resist and then they recoil. The object of identification becomes the nexus of contempt. It's not enough to ignore it or hold it in disdain. It has to be destroyed.

At least, I guess that's how it works. Again, it's supposition. Not being that kind of fan, I don't - can't - have that experience.

If it's not like that, though, why would forums and chat channels be filled with ex-fans throwing their time and energy into tearing down everything about the games they used to love? Why would people make accounts and characters for games they don't even play, just to log in and tell everyone how terrible those games are and how dumb everyone is for playing them?

Developers can observe that level of obsession, of connection, of identification. They can monitor it and moderate it and try to minimize it but they can't share it. At least, not if they're any good, they can't. There are professionals who do cross that line. I could name one or two. I'm not going to, because naming people like that is like calling up the devil. Pretty sure we can all think of examples, though.

Of course, all along here I've been talking about obsessive fans. Stans, if you will. I know some people don't like that term but it has value.

As bloggers we're almost certainly all fans of something or someone. Probably lots of somethings and someones. It's painfully clear from even a cursory reading of this blog that I'm a fan of EverQuest and Lana Del Rey, for example. I keep writing and posting about them, along with a few other things, even though it must be self-evident that I'm doing it because talking about my interests interests me, not because I expect it to interest anyone else.

That's fandom. It's also why fans can be really tedious company if you don't share their enthusiasms and sometimes even if you do. It's not toxic fandom, though. Al Snow didn't use the expression but I imagine that's what he meant. I don't think he was taking issue with people who subscribe to services that show wrestling matches or who buy magazines or even wait outside venues hoping to get an autograph or a selfie with their favorite.

That's the kind of experience creators, be they pro-wrestlers or game developers, can and do share with their fans. The cuddly, friendly, fun face of fandom. And, of course, creators can be fans in their own right, full-fledgedly outside their professional arena or, with limitations, inside it. When game developers say in interviews that they're fans of other developers' work, play their games and enjoy them, that's what they mean. Or at least I hope it is.

We can all share in that kind of fandom and understand it. We can all be fans, that kind. The other kind, though, the kind Al Snow is talking about, theirs is as unknowable an emotional experience to a working professional as that pro's actual working life is to an obsessive fan.

I'm not seeking in any way to explain obsessive, toxic behavior, far less to excuse or justify it. It's bad and it shouldn't happen. But bad things do happen. Understanding why they happen, that's the hard part. That and doing something about it. Hardest of all.

All I'm saying is, if it's hard for a fan to understand the experience of a professional, well, it cuts both ways. As for me, since I'm neither a stan nor a pro, clearly I don't understand anything at all.

Don't stop me talking, though, do it?


  1. There is no doubt a strong correlation between developers creating a game that they really want to play... something true of EQ, Diablo, Warcraft, WoW, and many more... and games that end up with long term, enduring success. Because guessing what the customer wants and building that is a very iffy proposition. Fortnite was pitched initially as a co-op building zombie defense game. Not many people wanted that, though it sounded great when they first announced it.

    Customers won't tell you what they want, only what they think they might want, and they are as like as not to reject what you make if you follow their advice. And a dangerous marketing person can convince a focus group that they want something, take their feed back, and be completely wrong because the group was only trying to please them in that moment.

    This is also why, when something becomes popular... ARPGS, MMORPGs, MOBAs, battle royale... everybody tries to jump on the bandwagon with their variation, because at least there is a proven market for that particular thing. Again, Fortnite tacks on a battle royale option and, suddenly, it is raining money.

    1. There's also some auteur theory in back of all this; the idea that really strong, coherent, successful games, no matter how many individuals it takes to produce them, are fundementally the singular creation of one inspired individual - Brad McQuaid, Naoki Yashida, Mark Jacobs, Chris Roberts...

      And it makes a lot of sense. It ought to be easier for one person, or a small group, to bring a Vision into focus than a for a committee. And when you add in focus groups and second-guessing the market rather than driving forward with something you understand and believe in, failure seems almost guaranteed.

      Of course, the problem with those kind of extremely passionate, self-confident individuals is hubris. They often seem to understand exactly what a great game would look like (something the design-by-committee approach patently does not) but turning that vision into a playable game is another matter altogether.

      There's a reason star creators have fans and committees and managers don't, though, even when they're competent, which they seldom are. Who was ever thrilled by competence?

  2. After that entire thoughtful post, all I can say is....


    1. Heheh! You're welcome. I can't stand Abba but the moment I thought of it I realized it was just the perfect title. I did check I could come up with a couple of good covers for the monthly music round up before I committed, though.


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